My wife and I had just bought an aging Toyota in fairly good working order, for a reasonable price. After our busy week of car hunting and a full work schedule, we decided to unwind over lunch that Friday afternoon at a new Korean restaurant in town. For a while we were the only customers there, but as we finished our meal two men came in for a take-out order. While they were waiting, we paid our bill, and I said to our friendly waitress, "The Lord bless you." One of the men, with puzzlement in his voice, said in a question of surprise, "You're Christians?" To my positive reply, he said, "Well, praise the Lord!"
An Unsought Dialog
But his eyes showed that he was perturbed and doubtful. Not able to linger, my wife and I got into our car—the only one parked in front of the restaurant, and started to drive away. Out came the man who had accosted me moments before. He motioned for me to crank down my window. After making a little small talk about the restaurant, he got to his point. "You say you're Christians. How come you have that bumper sticker on the back of your car saying 'Separate Church and State'? That view doesn't fit the gospel very well." It seemed hard for him to suppress his irritation.
"Well, friend," I replied, "I'm not ashamed of the idea on that bumper sticker. But the fact is, I've just bought this car, with the sticker already applied. I was quite amazed, too, when I first saw it, especially because the previous owner of the car works for a charitable organization whose sponsoring church promotes union of church and state. So I asked her
why she had this bumper sticker, just as you are now asking me.
"She answered, 'I'm 45 years old, and until last year I never had a bumper sticker on my car. But one Sunday the minister at my church heavily blasted certain religious groups and talked about the need for Christian politicians and activists to rise up against heretical sects and ungodly people who don't live as Christians. This intolerance really upset me. I felt it was time to take a stand for my beliefs. Mandatory, "believe or burn"religion is wrong—so, to express my protest, I bought this bumper sticker.'
"I understand this woman's point of view. One doesn't have to be an antagonist toward Christianity or any religion to believe in separation of church and state. In fact, that principle is conducive to the healthy development and preservation of true religion, which always has a way of outliving the false, without coercive action or governmental support."
At Theological Cross-Swords
My interlocutor wasn't convinced. He continued to glare at me and said, "Well, the Soviet Union had separation of church and state in their constitution, and look at what they did to Christians.
"It was Communism's purpose to annihilate the church by the power of the state," I replied. "True separation of church and state means the noninterference of government with religion and vice versa. Human history is also stained with a long record of brutalities performed by churches through the arm of the state. It isn't separation of church and state that leads to intolerance, but rather the dominion of one over the other or the joint action of both over the individual conscience. Such actions bring forth intolerable conditions that no genuinely spiritual person can approve."
Somehow I don't think these answers satisfied my questioner, but I have thought quite a bit about our conversation since. I've especially wondered why the world's most religious Man, who did more than anyone else to revive interest in spiritual life and the welfare of society, was an adamant advocate for the separation of church and state—and that when church and state were almost everywhere united, as they had been from time immemorial. When Jesus was on earth the Hebrew nation operated under a kind of muted "theocracy" (or, more precisely, ecclesiocracy) that was nonetheless humiliatingly subordinate to the government of Rome. Imperial Rome deified its emperors and never thought outside the bounds of cemented union between religion and government.
What Was Jesus' View?
So why would Jesus of Nazareth propagate ideas so antithetical to the established wisdom of His age? Let's look at a summary of His position on church and state:
1. Government and religion have their separate spheres of action and authority. See Matthew 22:21 and Mark 12:14-17.
2. The church should not be subject to state taxation, but it is not to militantly oppose abuses in this line (Matthew 17:24-27).
3. The church is not to use force against any other religious groups or persons whose practice and beliefs differ from its own (Luke 9:49-56). It is noteworthy that Christ made no concession to the bigotry and misbegotten views of His apostles in order to retain their favor. Nor did He avoid controversy when moral issues had to be clarified in order to lay a right foundation for the church against which the gates of hell would not prevail. Christ did not conduct a political campaign, but pursued a royal mission for the rebirth of the human spirit, an undertaking that would never have been advanced by harsh, repressive, or dictatorial measures. God's all-pervasive attribute is love, not intimidation through His omnipotence (Luke10:5-11).
4. The church is to bear persecution, but never to inflict it (Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:28-31; Luke 17:1, 2; John 18:10, 11, 36).
5. The kingdom of God is not of this world, but its principles are to be preached to all the world for a witness to all nations, in order that people may be saved from sin, personally and individually, but never by political or ecclesiastical fiat (John 18:36; Matthew 24:14; 25:31-46; 21:28-32).
6. All earthly nations without exception will ultimately prove antagonistic to the true gospel (Matthew 24:9; Mark 13:9-13).
Why would someone who was supremely desirous of making people religious and drawing the whole world to Himself (Matthew 24:14; John 10:16; 12:32) be so scrupulously protective of everyone's individual right to choose whom to worship and serve or even to decline worshipping anyone at all? Evidently Jesus understood something about people that they don't understand about themselves. Unless worship springs from a heart of responsive love to God—"we love Him because He first loved us"—then it is no more than a hollow form at best, and at worst, it is a vehicle for the pious unleashing of human prejudice and coercive control.
The whole idea of religious liberty is not natural to man. It comes to us from the Founding Father of liberty, who said, "And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. If the Son therefore shall make you free you shall be free indeed" (John 8:32, 36, cf. John 14:6; 2 Corinthians 3:17).
Can Liberty Turn Us Into Libertines?
But didn't Jesus realize that a morally unregenerate society would interpret liberty, especially in religious things, as license? Certainly He knew (John 8:12-31; Matthew 13:18-30, 37-43). He knows the hearts of all perfectly. And that is just the point. He purposes that none should be obliged to worship Him except by the constraint of informed, appreciative love (Luke 17:11-21; John 4:23, 24). True religion is an internal affair of the heart. Its effects naturally translate themselves into action—the action of redeeming, reconciling love, not of punitive force that says, "Believe as I do; worship as I do, or suffer holy wrath at my hands." Such a policy stems from the spirit of Adam and Eve's first son, Cain, who killed his brother over their two contrasting modes of worship. Abel's worship was in compliance with God's specified instructions; Cain's was not. Cain was a "heretic." But if Abel had killed Cain in the name of fidelity to God's truth, then he would have been a murderer. It is possible to be right in doctrinal understanding but wrong in spirit.
So How Do the Issues Get Settled?
Ultimately, God will settle all accounts. He Himself will deal with the spiritually disobedient (Luke 12:41-48; 18:1-14). But until then, He offers us every gracious and sincerely loving inducement to know and worship Him on His own terms—terms of pure wisdom, justice, and love that work together kindly and constructively for the salvation of all.
Meanwhile Jesus warns us against the snarling watchdog religion that spies faults in other men while remaining blind to its own (Matthew 7:4, 5). For with what judgment we judge, we shall be judged, and with what measure we mete, it shall be measured to us again (see verses 1 and 2 of the same chapter).
In the future all who love God will be under a pure theocracy, according to Revelation 21 and 22. There will be no distinction then between church and state, for God Himself shall visibly rule and reign over all this earth, as He presently does over the rest of the universe. All subjects in His kingdom will be cheerfully devoted worshippers of God, who have responded favorably to His truth from willing hearts.
Before His kingdom is visibly established here, however, no nation, no church is so trustworthy as to be commissioned by the Lord to usher in His reign of righteousness, especially not with cha-ins, stakes, flails, interdicts, or any
pain-inflicting, liberty-curtailing device. It's just
because man is so intolerant of dissent in religious questions, especially those that he understands the least, that Jesus advocated separation of church and state. After all, Jews and Gentiles joined in an ecumenical entente to oppose His doctrine of religious liberty, construing it as a threat to the status quo of their divergent orthodoxies. They clasped hands to accuse, torment, and kill the Creator of soul liberty, which they had so recklessly misused to their own eventual ruin.
I flash back to the sight of that angry, accusing face, worn by a man scandalized at the thought of keeping church and state separate. I wonder if this man was concerned whether he was served by Buddhists in that Korean restaurant, and what he should do about it if they were? I admit, I don't yet know what their religion is, but they are very gracious, and their cooking is excellent. I would like to talk to them about Jesus someday. But I won't despise or boycott them if they don't believe what I have to offer. Nor would I consign them to any holy inquisition of pastors, priests, or prosecutors for correction.
Brian Jones, a minister of religion as well as a much published author, writes from Chloe, West Virginia.